by Eldred Bird
In my last WITS post, Everything has a Story, I mentioned “The Maltese Falcon”. This movie revolves around what is arguably one of the most famous examples of a plot device known as a MacGuffin (sometimes spelled McGuffin). So, what is it?
Webster defines a MacGuffin as an “object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite lacking intrinsic importance.”
When we hear MacGuffin, most writers immediately think of an object like the falcon figurine from the movie, but as we see in the definition it can be just about anything. It might be a physical object, a specific character, or even something as intangible as an ideology or suspicion. It can be an event that pushes the main characters toward or away from something.
What does all this mean?
Basically, it means a MacGuffin is simply a plot device that usually has no other value beyond driving the plot forward—it’s a motivator. It’s not just a motivator for a scene or a chapter, but a common thread that weaves its way throughout the narrative.
Though the use of an object to drive the plot predates the MacGuffin, it’s believed that English screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who worked extensively with director Alfred Hitchcock, first coined the modern term. When asked about its origin in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University in New York City, Hitchcock, one of the most prolific users of the MacGuffin, explained it as follows:
“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh, that's a MacGuffin'. The first one asks, 'What's a MacGuffin?' 'Well,' the other man says, 'it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers, 'Well then, that's no MacGuffin!' So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”
We’ve already talked about the statue in The Maltese Falcon, so let’s go back a little further. When you talk about objects driving adventures, you need look no further than the Holy Grail, also known as the Holy Chalice. The pursuit of this most coveted item has driven tales from the Arthurian legends to Monty Python. It’s so well known that the term holy grail has come to describe any object of such rarity that people will do just about anything to obtain it.
Another more modern example is the sorcerer’s stone in the first Harry Potter book. The pursuit of the stone drives the plot forward and motivates the characters at every turn, even though we almost never see it and never witness its power. The same can be said for the horcruxes in last books.
People are often the center of a story, but it’s usually not one or more of the main characters. It’s a bit of a twist when the character driving the action isn’t even present for most of the story. One good example is Saving Private Ryan. While the entire film is about finding and extracting Ryan from the theater of war, he’s not the hero, or even a part of the action for the majority of the movie.
A less serious, but no less entertaining example of a person as a MacGuffin comes from the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock. If you’ve ever seen The Trouble with Harry, then you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to ruin it for you, but if you have a dark sense of humor (like me), then you will enjoy this one.
An example from my own shelf comes from my first book, Killing Karma. The MacGuffin in this tale is Rose McCarthy, James’ mother. Though she is never seen (the book opens at her funeral), it’s Rose’s influence that pushes James forward, as well as holds him back, as he learns how to navigate a world that is completely foreign to him.
If you’ve ever read a murder mystery or watched a crime drama on TV, then you’ve seen an incident used as a MacGuffin. The crime that’s been committed isn’t as important as the journey the hero takes in solving it. In this case, the incident can serve to motivate both the hunter and the hunted.
In Rear Window, Hitchcock turns this type MacGuffin a little sideways, as he was known to do. The MacGuffin here is whether or not a murder has even been committed.
In North by Northwest, Hitchcock uses a case of mistaken identity to drive the action. The twist here is the fact that the man the main character is mistaken for doesn’t even exist—a true case of the MacGuffin being nothing!
While people mainly associate MacGuffins with mysteries, they are a useful tool in any genre. They can be anything from a lost love that haunts the protagonist throughout a romance, to the search for a rare record album that leads to a character’s ultimate redemption (I’m talking to you, Jenny!). Just remember that the specific object is never as important as the actions and reactions it creates.
Do you have a favorite in books or movies? What about your own writing? Maybe you’ve used this plot device without even knowing it. Let us know in the comments.
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.
Note: All photos used in this post are public domain images from Wikimedia Commons.
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I'd never heard of a MagGuffin until I read your post. I suspect I'll be looking for them from now on, especially in my own work.
They are a very useful tool when it comes to motivating characters and moving the plot forward. Glad I could introduce you them!
I'd heard of them, V.M., but I sure didn't understand them!
Not knowing it had a name, I used this plot device in Blood Will Tell, a novella. A person dies in the first chapter. We never see him again, and yet as the plot unfolds we learn about how he influenced the lives of the hero and heroine, and continues to direct their actions as they seek his murderer. The deceased was the MacGuffin.
Great job, Pamela. The more you know about them, the more effectively you can use them.
I never considered a person as MacGuffin but I can see it now.
The Trouble with Harry is one of my favorite movies. Harry is most definitely a MacGuffin.
I wonder if people unconsciously look for a MacGuffin in stories and find themselves disappointed if there isn't one.
It's one of my favorites too, Ellen. It really shows that just about anything can be used as a MacGuffin. Even is a murder mystery the MacGuffin my not be the crime itself, it might be the motive. In this case it's even more intangible, as you can't touch an idea or thought process.
Excellent examples of MacGuffin's, Eldrid. I now recognize that I have a MacGuffin in my WIP. She's an ancient immortal witch, seen only in a portrait, but her essence has infused the estate with magic. I actually made her the main protagonist in a recently completed origin short story. It'll be fun searching out more MacGuffins.
Awesome, Barb. Isn't it amazing how we tend to do some of these things simply by our writer-intuition without even knowing there's a name for it!
Wonderful explanation and examples. Thank you, Eldred.
I never considered the ancient coin in my Sentinel series as a MacGuffin, but the search for it has driven the plot forward from book to book, even though it hasn't been found, yet. It will make a brief appearance in the final book, then never mentioned again.
We hear so many terms in our writing journey and it's great to be able to understand what they truly mean and then see them in our own work.
Wonderful example, Brenda!
I've got MacGuffins all over the dang place - I've just always called them themed objects. In one book it's a chair, in another it's a house, and EVERY short story I write has one because it helps move things along more quickly in a short amount of pages. Thanks so much for defining it here, Bob (and for the shout-out for Brotherly Love)! Fun fact: that story just won a first place award and was included in an anthology. 🙂
Big Congrats, Jenny! I knew that story had major potential when I first read it.
Thanks for an interesting post and such great examples. I have a MacGuffin in my WIP, a long-lost uncle the MC has to find, impelling him on a cross-country journey. I had no idea he was a MacGuffin.
A perfect example! And yes, feel free to share the link anywhere you wish!
I will be posting the link to this post on my blog.
North by Northwest is my favorite. Has been since I first saw the movie on UHF when I was a kid.
Okay, this is funny. I think the first time I ever saw that film was also on the local PBS channel on UHF!
Hi, to a fellow Arizona writer!
The speaker at one of the first Northern Arizona RWA meetings I attended years ago explained what a McGuffin is. Unfortunately, the craft of writing was so new to me it didn't sink in. Yours is a wonderful explanation that points out the different ways a McGuffin can be used, and I can finally say 'I get it'. It's interesting to look back at my books and see that yes, I've used them although I didn't truly know I had!
Thank you ... this is one of those posts I'll be saving for future reference.
Glad I could clarify it for you, Susan. A lot of people misunderstand and think the MacGuffin has to be an object, but it can be so much more. I happy this helped.
And I was ready for a cup of coffee. 🙂 Didn't know it had a name. I kind of used it in three connecting stories I wrote. Learn something new every day. 🙂